Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.

What did you see? Where to next?

Well, what did you see this year? Where did you go, and where do you want to go next?

2018 has been eventful for me, with lots of travel and some big projects.

(That doesn’t mean I found no time to read; you can see some of my favourite books from the last 12 months in this blog post).

This year I got to some places I’d never been before, as well as revisiting others that have long been important to me.

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Institutions at Play: Library Island in Perspektiv Magazine

How does a playful simulation help institutions to “see themselves from the outside”, reimagining their vision, mission, operations, and relationships?

In the new issue of Perspektiv, the magazine of Denmark’s library union, you can read about Library Island and its variants.

Whether you’re a fluent Danish speaker, or empowered by the magic of machine translation, you can read Sabrine Mønsted’s article “Library Island: Se biblioteket udefra” here.

What exactly is Library Island anyway?

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the last two years working on something called “Library Island”. You might have seen photos, videos, or social media posts appearing online as university staff, health workers, museum professionals, students, and, yes, librarians take part in this interactive training activity.

Later this year, a free CC-licensed print-and-play kit for Library Island will be released, so that people anywhere can take this activity and use it with their institutions, companies, and communities.

But what exactly is Library Island? Read on to find out… Read more

The Future Sound of Libraries, Revisited: Interview with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen

martinkbrathenToday I’m joined by Norway’s Martin Kristoffer Bråthen. Martin is head of innovation and product development at Biblioteksentralen, the cooperative business which supplies libraries across Norway with collection materials, equipment and services.

 

Prior to that, Martin worked at Deichman Bibliotek, the Oslo Public Library, in a range of project roles. During that time, he wrote a robust defence of public libraries in the age of the e-book in response to a comment by a senior Norwegian arts editor that “digitisation leaves public libraries on the scrapheap of history.”

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Napkins in Copenhagen: Starting Strategic Conversations

Copenhagen was the last stop on my workshop tour of the Nordic countries. I ran two sessions – a full day for librarians from across Denmark and Germany, plus a half day for Danish library managers. My hosts were Bibliotekarforbundet – the Danish Union of Librarians.

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We used a range of methods and techniques, including the Library Island activity, to explore issues of advocacy, strategy, inclusion, innovation, and coping with a turbulent political environment.

Participants discussed the possibilities of an uncertain future with their peers, then began to design practical responses to the challenges they had identified.

At the managers’ workshop, it became clear that tools were needed to support quick, credible internal and external conversations about libraries’ changing role in Danish society. These would be used to build stakeholder understanding of Danish libraries’ mission, and help staff members to see how their work fit into the larger priorities of their organisation. Read more

The Norwegian Library Innovation Exchange @innovasjonnorge

How do you get a whole nation thinking about the challenges which lie ahead of it?

How can you help a community to solve seemingly intractable problems?

Which institutions need to be part of the discussion about society’s future directions?

I visited Norway this week to speak and run a workshop at the national library conference, #biblkonf2018. I asked these questions, and more, with a focus on how libraries might serve the innovation agenda articulated by Norway’s innovation agency, Innovasjon Norge. (You can see slides from the keynote here).

Today I want to focus on one idea, which comes from the work of the British innovation agency Innovate UK. Read more

After Hours lecture at City University London

I’m speaking at City University’s “After Hours” lecture series in London next Monday, 15 October at 5pm.

The series, hosted by City’s Library and Information School, explores all aspects of information in modern society.

In my session, “Your Half-Truths Are Problematic“, I’ll be talking about our relationship to truth, facts, stories, and lies, both on- and off-line.

In 2018, who can we trust with our information, and what information can we trust?

Is there any institution we can rely on in an age beset by digital misinformation?

Are there tools we can use to fight back against those who seek to cloud the truth for their own purposes?

Join me at City University London to discuss these questions next Monday at 5pm.

A New Vision for Queensland’s Public Libraries

The new vision for public libraries in Queensland, Australia has been published by the State Library of Queensland.

The vision, which takes the form of a poster co-designed with Meld Studios, is based on research I conducted with the University of Southern Queensland’s Dr. Kate Davis lat year.

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You can download the poster for the new vision as a PDF here and read the research on which it was based as a PDF download here.